Thursday, January 14, 2016

If only I dared...

GrumpyAcademic here, reading my module evaluation questionnaires (happy sheets). My University has a policy whereby summary scores and my written response to the concerns of my customers students have to be posted in paper form on a departmental noticeboard, shared electronically via various means and presented to the Slave Staff - Student Liaison Committee.

I am NOT happy about my happy sheets. If I was being honest (and caustic) this is what I would like to say:

Dear Gerbil Greatness 407 students,

You complain that you never knew when to attend class or where it was. We met every week at the same times, in one of two rooms on the same floor of the same building (lab or classroom), and every week there was a notice on the door of the room we weren't using in case you went to the wrong place. That was too hard?

You complain that you do not understand what I want for the final report. We spent a whole class going over an example of a past report. Oh wait, only two of you attended that session. Hmmm…

Many of you thought the practical work was disconnected and didn't relate well to the lectures. Would that be because only one person out of the class managed to attend every lab, and everyone else missed at least two of the sequence?

You complain that I didn't tell you you would be expected to take notes during the field trip to Gloria's Genius Gerbils Gamboree and use them to write your essay on Genius Gerbils, which specifically told you to use the Gamboree as the case study? Why do you think we visited GGGG, for shits'n'giggles? Why did I tell you to bring notebooks and pens? Why did I ask if you were writing things down, or had any questions for Gloria (or indeed her gerbils)? Weren't you in any of the lectures when I spoke about the essay, did you not read the syllabus (of course not, what was I thinking?), did you not notice the pink piece of paper repeating the essay title which I included in the info pack for the field trip? Hells, even a pretty averagely dumb gerbil would have noticed ONE of those signs and at least asked about it...

But that MIGHT explain why the first essay I marked began 'Humphrey the Hamster is a Genius Gerbil of our times'.

You say I didn't explain why you should care about Gerbils or about their Greatness. Guys, it's an elective on Gerbil Greatness, and you are all majoring in Gerbil Studies or Gerbil Education or Gifted Rodents. I… kind of assumed that beginning each lecture by explaining how the topic helped us understand a recent rodent news item or replicate a Great Gerbil Moment From History would be enough of a reminder. Oops, my bad. Clearly I don't teach honours students enough to realise that you still need the same level of cheer-leading, geeing up and general theatrical bear-leading as the Frosh. Sorry, I assumed you'd actually grown up a bit.

And finally, the thing that totally baffles me. SEVERAL of you say you enjoyed the seminars and that they really helped you understand the literature. I am really confused by this statement, because only four people turned up to each seminar, and only one of them had ever done the reading. Did that person's multiple personalities fill out one form each???

Oh well, back to writing something a little more mea culpa, grovelling, and acceptable in the eyes of the Dean for Student Satisfaction.


  1. Last semester more than any other (in 18 years) made me shake my head. The (un)happy sheets had comments that made me wonder if they intended to evaluate a different course. The one they evaluated bore little resemblance to the one I taught. And yes, some of them seldom attended class.

    I had a term paper due and some complained I gave little guidance. I guess a 3 page long handout discussed in class wasn't sufficient? Others complained that on the exams, I gave problems where I had only one one example in class. Um, how many am I supposed to do for each type of problem? It's an upper level class and on Day 1 of the semester, I told them that since the examples were longer than we see in the intro class, there would be fewer of them.

    My biggest takeaway is that I'm going to have to spoon feed to the point where I'll be tempted to say "Open the hangar, here comes the airplane..." And we're turning them loose on the corporate world. What could possibly go wrong?

  2. I think we're well past the point of diminishing returns when it comes to leading students step by step through the process of education, and well into territory where our attempts to support them are becoming counterproductive (and this is coming from someone who is currently spending hours and hours updating assignments and discussion board prompts and other materials that serve just this purpose, and which I genuinely believe are useful, or I wouldn't be spending large chunks of what once used to be my free and/or research/writing time on them).

    I was talking to a very bright young member of my church last semester, someone I enjoy talking to about her studies, and who I'm pretty sure is a good student. She was taking a class from the recently-retired president of her university, a member of the older generation of university presidents who were real scholars and teachers as well as administrators. He's apparently old-school in another way: he hands out a brief syllabus and minimal reading schedule, and relays paper assignments in a sentence or two, sometimes orally, and that's about it for course materials. She was enjoying the class, but felt really at sea with such minimal information, while her mother (who's probably in her mid-late 50s) and I (early 50s) were saying "yep; that's what course materials looked like in our day; you'll manage; just do the readings and think how they relate to the themes of the course, and other stuff that has already come up in class." It was clear that the daughter still thought that the teaching of the course simply wasn't up to an acceptable standard (and perhaps that her very eminent professor, who as far as I know is in fine fettle intellectually, was slipping a bit in his old age).

    Given that this is a bright, self-motivated, intellectually curious student at a public Ivy, I don't know how in the world we walk the process back (and I realize that doing so might pose some dangers to less prepared and/or first-generation students, but I still think we need to try). I do know that we're all, teachers and students alike, in danger of drowning in a sea of too much information, too many reminders, etc., etc., and that that's probably one reason our students are missing key information (it's there, but hidden among too many reiterations of things we said earlier, required bureaucratize, etc., etc.).

    If anybody has a solution, please share!

  3. Damn, Grumpy, that sounds like an insultingly soul-sucking process. I'd like to buy you a virtual drink for going through it, and another for using the underrated term "gee up."

  4. Couldn't the moderator put up a Big thirsty yesterday?

    I enjoyed this posting above still.